We Overestimated Russia

In the months preceding Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, world leaders had been growing ever more uneasy about the build up of Russia's forces by the border. As the war enters its fifth week, were those fears about Russian military might justified?

Russian forces continue to besiege major cities like Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol and have made advances but have not secured the decisive victory Putin had likely been expecting and most of the country remains under Ukrainian control.

Britain's Defense Ministry said Saturday that Russia forces were reluctant to engage in infantry operations and were instead relying on air and artillery bombardments. Kyiv has said that more than 16,000 Russian troops have been killed, including half a dozen generals. Russia said on Friday that 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed. NATO has estimated the Russian death toll to stand at between 7,000 and 15,000 after four weeks of fightning.

Underestimating Ukraine's resistance can partly explain why Putin's forces have not made the progress the Kremlin had likely been hoping for but its campaign has also been hit by military blunders and it appears that the initial strategy has failed.

Newsweek asked six experts for their view on whether the international community had overestimated Russia's military capabilities:

Michal Baranowski, Warsaw Office Director of the German Marshall Fund

"I think both the West—and Russia—overestimated Russia's military capabilities. From Putin's perspective, this war was supposed to have lasted only a few days.

"Now it's clear that Putin will not reach its main political objective of having Ukraine and Ukrainian people be part of Russia's sphere of influence.

"That said, we should not make the mistake of underestimating the Russian army. There are still deep reserves in Russia that have not been used during this war, precisely because the Russian plan was that it would last only a few days.

"We would celebrate Russian defeat too early at our own peril."

Tracey German, professor in conflict and security, King's College London

"Certainly, the invasion has not gone the way that I imagine Putin and the Russian leadership would have wanted it to. There was an expectation [...] that the military modernization process that began in 2008, combined with operational experience (particularly in Syria), would mean that the Russian military was far more capable.

"However, the evidence suggests problems remain in areas such as logistics, troop morale and failure to gain air superiority.

"During the first month of its invasion of Ukraine, we have seen a number of failings that reflect long-running problems. Despite years of modernization and investment, the Russians appear not to have got to grips with some of the basics, such as logistics.

"The logistical issues are surprising as they have been a long-running problem.

"Russian operations in Chechnya in the 1990s and the invasion of Georgia in 2008 revealed a military logistics system that struggled to keep up, particularly with the demand for basics such as food, fuel and ammunition.

"This has been mirrored in Ukraine, particularly troops in the north."

Matt Qvortrup, political science professor, Coventry University, U.K.

"Yes, we did [overestimate Russia]. But, the fact of the matter is that Russia's army has a poor track record.

"The invasion in Georgia in 2008 showed that Russia's army is ill-equipped to fight conventional wars. After some atrocities— bombed hospitals—Russians withdrew to the positions they held before.

"Going back all the way to 1905 they [the Russian empire] lost the war to Japan, and 21 million deaths during the Second World War can hardly be characterized as a success. And, remember, the [1939] invasion of Finland did not go to plan."

Lt. Col. William Astore, ex-professor of history at U.S. Air Force academy

"It's certainly possible that the U.S. overestimated Russia's military capabilities. Recall that Russia spends $78 billion a year on its military, which is 1/10th of what the U.S. spends.

"The Russian military also lacks recent combat experience, especially in large-scale operations. Recall as well that the Pentagon routinely inflates threats, as we did with the Soviet military machine in the 1970s and 1980s. The Pentagon inflates threats as a way of boosting its own funding."

Ian Ona Johnson, assistant professor of military history, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

"It seems analysts did overestimate Russian conventional capabilities, and just as importantly, underestimated Ukrainian ones.

"Putin has invested greatly in rebuilding Russian military power since entering office. He raised military spending, shifted towards an all-volunteer standing army, and sought to modernize all branches of the Russian military.

"But much heralded fifth-generation fighters, precision munitions and hypersonic missiles have generally had little effect on the war thus far.

"Experts have long been impressed with Russian doctrine... based on the writings of Chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff Valery Gerasimov. These emphasized all aspects of war-fighting, including information and economic warfare, manipulation of opponents' politics and hybrid warfare.

"The picture Gerasimov drew was a highly sophisticated one... but it bears little resemblance to the war thus far conducted in Ukraine, which looks much more like the Soviet effort in Afghanistan.

"Russian success in the invasion of Crimea in 2014—which did seem to showcase the Gerasimov Doctrine—suggested a modern, professional, highly competent military.

"But those operations were conducted largely by Russian special forces and elite airborne units, while the current war in Ukraine has required a much broader swath of the Russian military. In addition, Ukrainian forces, better trained, armed, and much more numerous, have proven highly successful in defense."

Katie Laatikainen, political science professor at Adelphi University, New York

"Russia's overall capabilities are still much more significant than Ukraine's[...]but we probably did overestimate Russia's conventional forces capabilities by focusing on numbers of troops amassed along the borders of Ukraine in the lead-up to war.

"But it is the qualitative aspect of Russian military capabilities that have proved so consequential.

"The use of undertrained, underinformed conscripts, the lack of communication among the different military commands in the field, the overall poor logistical support have all contributed to the poorer-than-expected performance of the Russian military and its resort to more scorched-earth sorts of tactics."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry and the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry for comment.

Russian tank
Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by the Ukrainian forces on the side of a road in Lugansk region on February 26, 2022. Military blunders and significant losses of troops and equipment have meant that the Russian invasion has faltered. Anatolii Stepanov/Getty Images